Georgia Democrats prepare a ‘one-two’ gender punch for November

Democratic nominee for governor Stacey Abrams (right) with  the party's nominee for lieutenant governor, Sarah Riggs Amico. Special/Katrina Peed

Democratic nominee for governor Stacey Abrams (right) with the party's nominee for lieutenant governor, Sarah Riggs Amico. Special/Katrina Peed

Georgia Democrats appear to be gearing up for a one-two gender punch in the weeks leading up to November.

As evidence, let me point you to the grand finale of last week’s state Democratic convention, a downtown Atlanta event that was slightly overshadowed hours later by the death of U.S. Sen. John McCain.

Sarah Riggs Amico, the candidate for lieutenant governor and a former Republican, was brought to the front of an already packed stage. She gave her stemwinder, then introduced a biographic video of Stacey Abrams, the candidate for governor. Afterwards, Amico tossed to Abrams herself, who brought the afternoon to a crescendo.

You might be thinking, “Sure, that’s how it’s supposed to work.”

On the national stage, yes. But in Georgia, no. Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, whether Democrat or Republican, don’t run in tandem. They are listed on the November ballot separately. They raise money separately. A bumper-sticker might weld their names together to give the illusion of coordination, but sometimes they can barely stand to be in the room together.

Abrams and Amico may be headed toward something different. Call it the A-team: One white, one black, both women – drawing the sharpest possible October contrast with Brian Kemp and Geoff Duncan, the two white males topping the Republican ticket.

“It’s the one-two punch that is sort of something for everyone. I mean there really is a way to bridge so many gaps — not within the Democratic party, but I think in Georgia,” Amico said after leaving the stage. “We can speak to a lot of different constituencies.”

I asked her if she and Abrams would have a joint ground game. “I don’t know that any candidates are spending a lot of time together, because we have a lot of ground to cover. But we do stay in touch,” Amico said. “We have done some video together, we have had a few conversations on policy, and then we see each other out in the state.”

Abrams’ people are a tight-lipped crowd, and are more coy about a strategic pairing with Amico (which is pronounced something like “amigo”). But they don’t say it ain’t so.

“We are excited about her candidacy and look forward to working with her the coming ten weeks,” Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said via text. “We have a strong ticket overall and Abrams-Amico at the top of the ticket is an exciting new day.”

On one level, an AA partnership would simply be a matter of taking advantage of an established political fact. Twenty-five states allow gubernatorial nominees to pick their running mates, who are paired with them on the November ballot. Georgia is not one of them.

The system can make ticket-balancing more convenient. Earlier this month, the Democratic primary in Michigan produced five statewide candidates – four women, one man. All were white.

The Democratic candidate for governor, former state senator Gretchen Whitmire, selected Garlin Gilchrist, an African-American and veteran of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, as the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor.

Georgia and 16 other states leave the choice to voters, which can rather be like Russian roulette. In 2010, Democratic primary voters paired Roy Barnes, attempting a return as governor, with first-time candidate Carol Porter. Barnes had defeated Carol Porter’s husband, former House minority leader DuBose Porter, to win the nomination. Both lost in November.

An even more hostile pairing occurred in 1970, when Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination for governor. Segregationist Lester Maddox, barred from a second term as governor, won the nomination for lieutenant governor. Both won the general election.

“From what I can tell and what I see, there’s a very good rapport between Stacey and Sarah,” said Melita Easters, executive director and founder of Georgia’s WIN List, an organization dedicated to electing women candidates who support abortion rights. “There’s a very real acknowledgement and understanding on behalf of everybody, that Stacey needs a Legislature she can work with, and that would include having Sarah at the gavel in the Senate.”

Kristin Oblander is in charge of Amico’s fundraising. She likes the idea of an A-team ticket. “I’m trying to think of a minus, and honestly I can’t think of one. They both have amazing backgrounds,” she said.

Abrams and Amico do have much in common. Both are well-educated with advance Ivy League degrees – Abrams from Yale Law and Amico from Harvard Business. Both make their personal faith a regular topic in their stump speeches. Abrams’ parents are both Methodist ministers. “We have to have real conversations, on stoops and on sun porches, in living rooms and in pews,” Abrams told Democrats last week.

Amico describes herself as a pro-choice, evangelical Christian and former Republican who attends a non-denominational church in Cobb County.

Yet their biographies are decidedly different. Abrams is a Mississippi-born tax attorney who grew up poor in Atlanta, but who also earned significant experience in the state Capitol as the leader of House Democrats. Amico is the executive chairman of Jack Cooper Holdings Corp., a Cobb-based trucking and logistics firm run by her father, Michael Riggs. She was raised in rural Missouri.

On a policy level, differences between Abrams and Amico appear to be minor. “I think we come sometimes at a problem from a different angle because of our different experience,” Amico said. “For example, on technical colleges, I think it would be wonderful if it could be free.” Through more co-opt programs, she explained.

There’s no question who would be the dominant partner on an Abrams-Amico ticket. As of mid-summer, Abrams had raised $6 million to make her name a household one. Various allies have spent millions more. Even her GOP foes are working to make her famous.

Amico is a political rookie, so little known that her name isn’t likely to register in statewide polls. (A situation no different than that faced by her rival, Republican Geoff Duncan.)

So Amico wouldn’t bring political experience or an established following to the partnership. But she could become an essential part of a biracial invitation to white female voters, in suburbia and rural Georgia, turned off by the Trumpian turn of the Republican party.

But wait, you say. Abrams has very publicly said her campaign strategy is to reach out to unregistered Georgians, many of them African-American, who have been ignored by Democrats in the past. “We need to find those who gave up on us a long time ago, and we have to give them a reason to believe again,” Abrams told Democrats at that convention.

But Oct. 9 is the final day of voter registration. The electoral pool will be locked down, and Abrams’ search for new voters will be over. The game necessarily changes.

And the very picture of change is what an Abrams-Amico ticket would offer.

“You can vote for more of the same. You can vote for people who tell us that driving a deportation bus around the state, running for governor, is somehow normal,” Amico said. “Or you can vote for women who say I want to be a governor and lieutenant governor for everyone.”